...They won the game and they deserved it. Congratulations Bolts, you are a good team and played very well on Sunday.
Of course, I'm not happy that the Colts lost. It's hard even to type that, it's so incomprehensible to think I'd be okay with a defeat. Every Colts loss bothers me a great deal and leaves me ever more embittered — which meant I was almost totally intolerable for much of the 80s and 90s. But this may be the easiest loss I have ever had to endure. It makes no impact on the playoff race, relieves a great deal of pressure on the players and staff and gets a great deal of unwanted attention taken away from the team. If nothing else, I no longer have to listen to the surprising number of brand-new Colts fans talk about the exploits of "Wayne Reggie" and that "Edgar N. James" fellow.
But this loss was also very instructive, perhaps for the rest of the league. It showed which players were hurt, which weaknesses can be exploited and who's perhaps not quite ready to be playing regularly in the NFL.
• Peyton Manning made some outstanding throws under perhaps the most pressure he's seen since his rookie year. He did, however, throw into coverage far too often — a habit he picked up in easier times — and delivered two interceptions of passes tipped by the intended receiver. Both were into double coverage. I wouldn't worry too much about Manning's running. He's actually a much better runner than most fans and scouts give him credit for, but that 4th-and-1 debacle he's being criticized for was really the result of him trying to make the best of a busted play, not a bizarre master plan. And to those who call for Jim Sorgi to take the snaps from here in out, I have to ask you: If your boss gave you the option of letting someone else do your job for you, would you take it? Your answer will could be a pretty accurate indicator of your level of professionalism, so think about it before you reply.
• Edgerrin James was boxed in by the Chargers, but I don't really fault him. His offensive line served as nothing more than barriers and the Chargers predicated their game around stopping him. James hit what may have appeared to be holes and ran hard, but really couldn't do much more than protect the ball and his knees. Actually, now that I look at the tape again, he did more than that. James was perhaps the most effective pass-blocker the Colts had throughout the game. It's my understanding that Manning rewards his linemen with gifts every Christmas. He'd better put James on that list this year — I'd suggest something gold. It'd also be nice to give him a pre-Christmas present, like a couple of fly routes on second down.
• As a group, the Colts receivers played a good, courageous game. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne did what was expected, but wasn't it nice to see Brandon Stokely get a few snaps and an opportunity to remind us all what he can do? I absolutely guarantee he'll play a much larger role in the playoffs than he has thus far in the regular season. Dallas Clark had a relatively nice game, but he's still not playing at the level Colts fans have become accustomed to after so many years with the woefully under-appreciated Marcus Pollard. Bryan Fletcher did nothing positive on Sunday.
• As a group, the Colts offensive line played a poor, confused game. Over the past few weeks, I watched at Ryan Diem's play fell from super-human to good to average to poor. I realize now that he was nursing and perhaps hiding an injury that — after his MCL sprain — is no longer a secret. When he's on, Diem's a beast, but when he's not, he can be beaten. His replacement against the Chargers was Jake Scott, who was struggling at guard before the move. About 60 pounds lighter than Diem, Scott appeared no quicker or more athletic when Shawne Merriman was blasting by him. Scott's shift also weakened the interior as his spot was filled by Dylan Gandy. While I believe Gandy has a great (okay good) future in the NFL, he looked scared and shaky on Sunday. Diem will be out for the rest of the regular season and perhaps into the playoffs, so the Colts had better hope that Scott and Gandy aren't as bad as they looked against San Diego.
• Despite missing two Pro Bowl-caliber players, the Colts' defensive line played much better than I expected. Dwight Freeney, who I think is the best player in the league at any position, played hurt and did well, although he looked at times as though he was trying to do too much. His sack broke the career franchise record, which I was surprised to learn was held by Duane Bickett. Montae Reagor suffered more than anyone else by the huge reduction of talent on the defensive line, but was a heads-up guy as usual. I was pleasantly surprised by the play of Josh Williams. While he was no Simon, he certainly looked better than the Josh Williams I remembered. Not to put undue blame on the line, but I really thought I should mention Michael Turner's 83-yard run somewhere. Traditionally, the Tony Dungy-led Colts have had a very hard time stopping capable backups when they have concentrated on stopping a star like LaDanian Tomlinson and this was no different.
• It was awful to watch Cato June limp through the game. He was so hobbled, he looked almost like Gilbert Gardner. On the other hand, it was great to see Gary Brackett intercept a pass. He started his career as a nickel 'backer and I still think it's his best quality.
• Nick Harper has been doing it with smoke and mirrors. I know a bit about defensive back play and, although I can see huge gaps in his game, opposing quarterbacks haven't and he has been getting positive results. Jason David didn't play his best game. What gets me about a team that plays Cover-2 so often, is that neither of the starters at safety — Bob Sanders and Mike Doss — are very good in deep coverage. Sanders is a major force against the run, and Doss has his qualities, but either can be had in the deep zones. Here's a nutty idea. How about having Sanders and Doss play corner, whacking receivers as they try to get off the line and shutting down the outside run before it starts, and allowing the much quicker and fluid Harper and David play goalie.
• Believe it or not, I'm still on board with the Dave Rayner experiment, even though Polian himself has wavered and auditioned a few kickers in recent days. I've been around long enough to remember Mike Vanderjagt and Hunter Smith kicking off and Rayner is better. Not a ton better, but better. Many fans cried foul when Rayner was called out to try a 59-yard field goal to end the first half, but I see the logic. He does have a stronger leg than Vandy — whose career longest was a 54-yarder in 2002 that scraped over the bar. If Rayner hits it (and c'mon, it's 59 yards, only Gus the kicking mule could have made that), his confidence goes through the roof, if he misses, it's no big deal. I don't hold Hunter Smith's fourth-quarter touchback against him because he'd punted so well earlier in the game (not to mention his career). Many of the same voices who were calling for Dominic Rhodes to replace James as the Colt's feature back are now calling for his head after he fumbled a kickoff return. Turn it down, spazzes, fumbles happen. And, as always, Troy Walters' pursuit of the single-season fair catch record stays intact.
• An aside: Two of the Chargers' draft choices — Luis Castillo and Darren Sproles — were big players in this game and have been all year. Before the draft, many ColtPower members were strongly supportive of both players and they appear to have been right. Castillo has not just been a pillar of strength against the run, but has proven to be a force against the pass, too. Sproles has done some nice things on offense and has shown himself to be a courageous and effective returner of both kicks and punts. Would the Colts trade Marlin Jackson and Matt Giordano (the players they took in the same rounds) for them? I don't know, but I would.
Draft watch: The Colts have a reputation for being able to find gems among the small schools, and I have a suggestion for them. If they send a scout all the way to Warrensburg, Missouri, to watch the Central Missouri State Mules, they'll see a potential star in the making. Delanie Walker is a 6'2, 232-pound wideout who can probably run an honest 4.55 and has pro skills. He's playing in Division II because he had a hard time getting his grades in order, but he seems like a pretty solid kid nonetheless. A top-tier college wideout with strength, hands and natural running skills, what particularly intrigues me about Walker is his potential as a returner. He's done a fantastic job at the position in college and could be a destroyer in the NFL.
Jerry Langton's "Observations"
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